The Wisconsin Primary Proves Election Day Should Be A National Holiday

 

The Wisconsin election and presidential primary held on April 7, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic stay-at-home quarantine was an ad hoc experiment. Political Science is different from the other sciences like Physics or Chemistry, where one person's theory or discovery can be checked by others in a laboratory replicating the results. There is no way to re-run an election using different voting rules to see which system works best.

 

The 2016 General Election saw the highest percentage (27%) of ballots cast absentee in Wisconsin's history. Because of the coronavirus, this year, more than 1 million people (38.4% of registered voters) requested absentee ballots, overwhelming the clerical staff of election offices. Some 4,728 voters asked for absentee ballots but were never sent them by the clerks. In the April 7 election, more than 1.1 million mail ballots were returned, more than 72% of all ballots cast. By comparison, in Wisconsin's 2016 presidential race, 425,000 fewer absentee ballots were requested, although almost twice as many people cast ballots.

 

Usually, voters in Wisconsin return over 95% of the absentee ballots they requested. Due to the chaotic conditions that prevailed, uncertainty over the time and conduct of the election, fear of contagion by going out to mail the ballot, less than 89% of the vote-by-mail ballots were returned in April.

 

Return Rates for Absentee Ballots in Wisconsin

 

Year

Ballots Sent

Ballots Returned

Percentage returned

Percentage of vote

2016

845,243

830,763

98.2%

27.27%

2018

595,914

565,591

94.9%

21.10%

2020

1,271,734

1,129,488

88.8%

72.76%

 

 

Governor Evers had tried to postpone the election. The legislature refused to accommodate that request. The usual flurry of court filings followed, to no avail. The election proceeded as scheduled with the normal rules in place.

 

However, given that people were under a stay-at-home order because of the coronavirus, many of the poll workers, who are generally elderly and retired, would not work on Election Day. The result was that Milwaukee, Wisconsin's biggest city had only five polling locations compared to its usual 180. Although less than 425,000 people showed up to vote in person, there were two-hour waits in some places.

 

So, when the ballots were counted, what was the result? Wisconsin had the highest voter turnout of any presidential primary election this year, beating New Hampshire, the usual winner, 45.83% to 44.91%, by almost a full percentage point even with thousands of disenfranchised voters.

 

New Hampshire is the gold standard of presidential primaries. First in the nation, it attracts outsized attention for its 1 million voters. It started in 1916 and became first in the nation in 1920, a position it has held ever since. In 1948, presidential candidates' names were added instead of just pledged delegates, and it rocketed to national prominence when it launched Dwight Eisenhower's successful quest in 1952. For the next 40 years, every president and half of the major party losers won the New Hampshire primary. With so much at stake, candidates lavish time, attention, and unprecedented sums of money on the Granite State that regularly generates general election sized turnouts.

 

New Hampshire v. Wisconsin Percentage Presidential Primary Voter Turnout

Year

2000

2004*

2008

2012*

2016

2020**

New Hampshire

44.4%

29.9%

53.6%

31.4%

52.4

44.9%

Wisconsin

22.7%

24.6%

37.1%

25.9%

49.4%

45.8%

* In 2004, California had the highest at 31.0%, and in 2012, it was North Carolina, John Edwards' home state, with 31.5%. These 0.1% differences are not significant because the Voting Eligible Population is an estimate. ** Percentage of registered voters.

 

The reason for the high turnout is that voters had nothing else to do. They were stuck at home, more than stuck, they were required to stay at home except for necessities. Going to vote gave them a legitimate reason to get out of the house, get some exercise, and relieve their boredom.

 

There is nothing in a democracy more necessary than casting a ballot. That so many of our fellow citizens in Wisconsin were courageous enough to risk contracting a serious, possibly fatal illness to exercise their franchise deserves our admiration and our thanks.

 

They risked their lives to send a message that we should all take to heart. On Election Day in Wisconsin, when the voters had almost nothing else to do but vote, the turnout was historically high. The coronavirus pandemic was a unique opportunity to conduct an election without the distractions of daily life. Could any experimental result be more precise?

 

For voter participation in elections to increase, Election Day should be a holiday. Voters should be given as much free time as possible to cast their ballots.

 

It Matters When Elections are Held

 

In contrast to the robust voter turnout in places like New Hampshire and Wisconsin, New Jersey's voter turnout has been in free fall. New Jersey holds gubernatorial and legislative elections in odd-numbered years, instead of in even-numbered ones like 47 other states.

 

New Jersey Legislature-Only Election Turnout

 

Year

1947

1951

1955

1959

1963

1967

1971

1975*

1979

1983

Turnout

53%

59%

81%

71%

70%

64%

62%

57%

48%

48%

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Year

1987

1991

1995

1999

2003

2007

2011

2015

2019

 

Turnout

47%

51%

38%

31%

34%

32%

27%

22%

27%

 

* 18-year-olds got the vote in 1972. Young people are less likely to vote given their mobility and interest in other things.

The 27% turnout in last year's Assembly-only election was a disgrace. The Governor's and Legislature's sending vote-by-mail ballots to tens of thousands of voters who did not request them managed to boost turnout only marginally from the historically low 22% in 2015.

 

The turnout for state legislative elections in New Jersey has been in a steady decline since 1991. Voters were defrauded of their right to fill vacancies in the legislature by a deceptive Explanatory Statement of a constitutional amendment giving party committees the right to pick the elected officials instead. The New Jersey legislature has since become a game of musical chairs. Officials resign, their replacements are appointed by political party county committee members in private, and then the new representative runs as an incumbent in a gerrymandered district in November. No wonder only one in four voters are bothering to cast ballots in what are effectively fixed contests.

 

Only 8% of voters cast ballots in New Jersey's legislative primaries last year and a meager 27% voted in the General Election. Perhaps New Jersey voters have ballot fatigue from having to vote at least two or even three times every year. It's almost like a part-time job.

 

In addition to making Election Day a holiday, New Jersey should move its gubernatorial and legislative elections to even-numbered years, like all the other 47 states except for two (Louisiana and Virginia). After President of the United States, the race for governor attracts the most voters, except in the states with odd-year contests.

 

Odd-numbered year governors' races versus previous even-numbered year federal election:

State

Governor's race

Percent

Prior federal election

Percent

Difference

New Jersey

2,198,362

38.5%

3,248,642

55.3%

‒ 16.8%

Virginia

2,629,309

47.6%

3,351,757

59.5%

‒ 11.9%

Louisiana

1,152,864

39.8%

1,472,044

50.2%

‒ 10.4%

 

Low turnout elections yield weak governments with questionable legitimacy.

 

Moving New Jersey's gubernatorial and legislative elections to even-numbered years will increase turnout. The change will also save money, which was the excuse for abolishing special elections to fill vacancies in the legislature in the first place.

 

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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf